In November 2004, a sad but very familiar scene played itself out: A sick, 75-year-old man who had been living in squalor for several years after an extremely difficult life — including a near-death experience in the Libyan desert — finally passed away. Doctors at the Percy hospital in France determined he died of natural causes: a stroke caused by an unidentified infection. As is so often the case, human life ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
But, of course, this wasn’t just any ailing and frail 75-year-old man. It was Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, president of the Palestinian Authority, and national symbol of the Palestinian cause. This was the man who had overseen the revival of the Palestinian political and national identity, and who held a certain iconic status even for his most bitter Palestinian critics.
From the outset, there was a refusal to believe that such a “great man” could have died a squalid, mundane death. For many, his ending had to be heroic and romantic. He must have been assassinated. Anything less wouldn’t do justice to his mythological, larger-than-life status. As early as November 2004, Palestinian journalist Maher Ibrahim wrote in the Dubai-based newspaper Al-Bayan, “Israeli Radiation Poisoning Killed President Yasser Arafat.” A Palestinian grocer, Terry Atta, reflected public sentiment that has been widespread since Arafat’s death when he recently told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper, “We all knew it was poisoning.”
As with the endless theories about “who killed JFK,” the Arafat murder conspiracy theories reflect a natural human tendency to protect the mythic and the iconic from the prosaic: How could a giant like John F. Kennedy have simply been shot by a pathetic loser like Lee Harvey Oswald? Counterintuitively, narratives about grand conspiracies are reassuring, while random twists of fate can be deeply unsettling: Is reality really so terrifyingly arbitrary?
Some Israelis, such as Lenny Ben-David, former deputy chief of mission of Israel’s embassy in Washington, meanwhile, seized the opportunity to suggest that their hated enemy was a “sexual deviant” who had died of AIDS. Conspiracy theories in all directions have never relented from the moment Arafat passed away, and Palestinian leadership bodies have established more than one commission of inquiry to discover “who killed Arafat?”
Enter Al Jazeera English. This week, with enormous fanfare, the Qatar-backed satellite channel released a TV special and series of articles reporting that a Swiss lab has found elevated traces of polonium 210 — a chemical element more than 250,000 times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide — on some of Arafat’s possessions, including his trademark kaffiyeh headscarf, provided to the network by his widow, Suha. As the channel must have known, and probably intended, this “revelation” unleashed a veritable tsunami of speculation, virtually all of it utterly baseless.
In a manner reminiscent of Glenn Beck, the conspiracy-minded American talk-show host, the station, in effect, insists it is “only asking questions.” But only the most naïve could doubt that the channel’s managers were well aware their story would prompt an orgy of conspiratorial theorizing.
Millions of people now appear to be convinced that Arafat died of polonium poisoning, much like the former KGB agent turned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Many Arabs are blaming Israel. Others, following not particularly subtle hints in various aspects of Al Jazeera’s coverage, are suspecting an inside job conducted by rivals within Fatah. And numerous Israelis, including some former officials, have been once again hinting at a “secret illness,” as reported by Reuters correspondent Dan Williams on Twitter, obviously returning again to the utterly discredited AIDS theory.
There are at least three gaping holes in the Al Jazeera story that render it, in effect, little more than baseless, and indeed irresponsible, speculation.
First and most importantly, Arafat’s symptoms are well documented and completely inconsistent with 210PO (polonium) poisoning. Unlike Litvenenko, he didn’t lose his hair and his bone marrow was found to be undamaged. He also staged at least one brief recovery, which wouldn’t be possible in the case of polonium poisoning. It should be added that his symptoms were also completely inconsistent with AIDS.
Second, the Swiss lab report on which the Al Jazeera story relies, clearly states that its findings are inconclusive and provide no basis for concluding polonium poisoning, especially since his symptoms were inconsistent with that. The report also states that further testing may reveal that the 210PO levels detected may prove to have been naturally occurring, albeit unusually high.
Third, the provenance of the items in question is not well-established, and therefore the relationship between the 210PO levels discovered on them and Arafat’s condition is very much in doubt. Even an exhumation of the body, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is reportedly considering, may not prove conclusive, as 210PO has a very short half-life of 137 days.
Finally, the timing of the Al Jazeera story is extremely suspicious. The PA leadership is currently embroiled in a series of controversies involving police brutality against demonstrators,suppression of dissent, potentially politically motivated corruption trials, and a growing financial crisis that has made paying the salaries of public employees extremely difficult.
The PA’s woes have paralyzed its diplomacy. A recent planned meeting of Palestinian officials with Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz fell through, at least partly due to public pressure. An upcoming meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and French President Francois Hollande, apparently designed to persuade the Palestinians not to renew their efforts for further recognition at the United Nations, is also meeting with considerable Palestinian public opposition.
Al Jazeera has a history of trying to discredit the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, most notably with the release of a dump of often undated and unsigned documents from the PLO negotiation support unit in January 2011. The current report, which fails to make a convincing case that Arafat was killed by 210PO poisoning, seems to be only the latest iteration of this pattern.
The core reporting in the Al Jazeera story doesn’t constitute journalistic malpractice, but the sensationalism with which it is being presented is clearly designed to reignite the rumor mill about Arafat’s supposedly mysterious death. But the burden of proof on those who would claim that the death of a sick, 75-year-old man who ended his days in miserable squalor following an exceptionally difficult life was due to anything other than natural causes — as established by his doctors at the time — is extremely high. So far, nothing, including the new Al Jazeera report, even begins to meet that burden.